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A Sermon by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
I seldom mention politics from the pulpit because it’s dangerous, and generally foolhardy, and if you’re not really careful, it’ll blow up in your face. Frankly, politics and religion mix about as well as gasoline and cigarette lighters – it’s just not a good idea to bring them together. But I’m going to do it anyway.
Right at the moment we’re in the middle of the primary season. The Iowa caucuses just took place, the long list of the usual suspects, uh, I mean candidates, is beginning to be whittled down. People are making predictions about what will happen in the upcoming primaries, and in the conventions this summer and in the election this fall. But the real story of the presidential election of 2016 will not be written until sometime after the first Tuesday in November. Then bloggers, and newspaper columnists, and ultimately political scientists and historians, will be able to look back and pick out those moments that led to the fateful day in the fall when America elected a new president.
For the church, the season of Lent is a time to look back at the life and ministry of Jesus and see what it was that led him to the cross on Good Friday and out of the tomb on Easter morning. Luke and the other gospel writers wrote years after the events they talk about. Like a good political writer looking back at the election of 2016, they have the advantage of hindsight and can pick out those things to highlight that will help their readers understand who Jesus was, and what his death and resurrection means for the people of the world.
There are five Sundays in Lent and the people who put together the Lectionary have carefully and thoughtfully picked out five incidents to help us follow Jesus from baptism to death. These stories are familiar to most of us, so familiar that we need to read them closely and listen to them carefully to hear the gospel speaking in new way in a new time. In the coming weeks we will hear about Herod the fox and Jesus as a mother hen seeking to protect he chicks; we will be reminded of the fig tree which bore no fruit and the prodigal son who ran away and then came back. We will sit at dinner with Lazarus and his sisters while one of them anoint Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and Judas begins to fret. But first, today, we will think a little bit about the temptations of Jesus – Jesus alone in the wilderness with the devil.
I have to wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he walked from Nazareth to the Jordan to get baptized. He comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, a voice claims him as the beloved Son of God. That’s got to be one of the best days anybody’s ever had.
But then a strange thing happens: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” I wonder if Jesus thought to himself, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” I don’t know what Jesus was expecting, but I’m pretty sure forty days without food while arguing with the devil was not on the list.
Well, he may not have been expecting it, but he was prepared. Luke presents the dialogue with the devil in a somewhat stylized manner and the form it takes is interesting. The Holy Spirit has just declared Jesus to be the “Son of God,” so the tempter goes after that first. “If you are the Son of God, prove it,” he says. Command this stone to become a loaf of bread. And Jesus, drawing on his years of studying the scriptures, responds, “It is written.” Or as Billy Graham used to put it, “The Bible says.” “Man does not live by bread alone.”
The devil tries again, “If you will worship me, I’ll give you the world.” And Jesus again responds, “It is written,” quoting Hebrew scripture – “Worship the Lord your God.”
One more time the devil tempts Jesus, tests him, “If you are the Son of God,” throw yourself down and let the angels catch you. And before Jesus can respond, the devil tries to beat him at his own bible game, saying with a smirk, “It is written,” then citing two places in Hebrew scripture where the writers claim the promise of God’s protection. Can’t you just imagine Jesus smiling and shaking his head and then reminding the devil, “It also says, ‘Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.’”
There’s a double meaning in that line about not putting the Lord to the test. On the one hand, Jesus says to the devil. “I can’t jump off a roof testing to see if God the Father will rescue me. It’s against the Bible.” But Jesus also knows that the devil knows who he is, the devil knows he is the Son of God, the devil knows he is the Christ; so Jesus is tell the devil, “It’s not appropriate to test me either, as I am the Son of God. Time’s up. Go away.” And the devil did – for now.
The last two words in this text are haunting, aren’t they? “An opportune time.” A time when Jesus is once again vulnerable, questioning, weakened, stressed. A time when he is sorting out who he is and what it is he is called to be and to do. This is why Jesus was so vehement when Peter first called him the Christ but then tried to talk him out of the idea that to be the Christ meant to suffer and die. “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus thundered – because behind the words of Peter he heard echoes of the devil’s attempts to divert him from what he knew to be his necessary role of suffering servant. These were real temptations Jesus faced; real ways of following God that did not entail suffering, ways that made him popular and famous. But Jesus turned away from these ideas in the wilderness, Jesus turned away from them when he confronted Peter, and he turned away for the last time in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “If you can take this cup from me, please do. But not my will but your will be done.”
Like Jesus, we often struggle with what it means to be children of God. As individuals, as a congregation, and as the larger Christian community – we are often tempted to seek out ways to follow Jesus that make us look good, or that we will give us more influence and popularity; that will make us more attractive and make people want to become a part of our community – as if winning people for Christ were the same thing as winning a primary or an election. But Jesus’ time in the wilderness teaches us it’s not. The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to examine ourselves and our temptations and for us to embrace the life of being suffering servants, seeking ways to serve those in need in the name of the one who died for all.